Fallen Angels

Comic delirium can be a tricky theatrical phenomenon to define, but one could do worse than begin with Frances de la Tour's performance in the new London revival of "Fallen Angels." That assertion might seem surprising at first, since de la Tour seems an unlikely Noel Coward performer. Just as unlikely as, say, her chirpy co-star, Felicity Kendal, would be in an Edward Albee play (Albee's 1998 "The Play About the Baby" marked a career high point for de la Tour). But it's the ever-delightful way of the theater to surprise, and so de la Tour does here. On this evidence, the debate is no longer whether one of Britain's more sonorously spoken and droopy-eyed actresses can deliver up Coward; it's which moments -- in a three-scene cavalcade of them -- individual theatergoers will respond to most.

Comic delirium can be a tricky theatrical phenomenon to define, but one could do worse than begin with Frances de la Tour’s performance in the new London revival of “Fallen Angels.” That assertion might seem surprising at first, since de la Tour seems an unlikely Noel Coward performer. Just as unlikely as, say, her chirpy co-star, Felicity Kendal, would be in an Edward Albee play (Albee’s 1998 “The Play About the Baby” marked a career high point for de la Tour). But it’s the ever-delightful way of the theater to surprise, and so de la Tour does here. On this evidence, the debate is no longer whether one of Britain’s more sonorously spoken and droopy-eyed actresses can deliver up Coward; it’s which moments — in a three-scene cavalcade of them — individual theatergoers will respond to most.

Myself, I’m partial to her efforts to land a Champagne bottle anywhere remotely near a grandly appointed dining room table, although de la Tour is pretty splendid later in the same scene allowing the cigarette dangling from her mouth to do a little dance. (The same ciggy is then scooped from her lips by Kendal.) On the other hand, few will quickly forget de la Tour’s attempts to take off her shoes while standing in them (you try that at home). Or her imagining of a fork full of food as a stretcher carrying upon it the wished-for sight of her dead husband. “I wouldn’t be so aloof,” her character, a soignee Englishwoman named Jane Banbury, tells her dear friend and occasional enemy, Kendal’s Julia Sterroll. “I would give in without a murmur” — and if the delighted shrieks of a near-sellout Thursday matinee are any gauge, rare will be that audience member who doesn’t eventually capitulate.

The hurdle may well be one’s patience for a gossamer-thin play that has always functioned as an unabashed vehicle for two starry women. Written in 1923, the play was first produced on the West End in 1925 in the wake of Coward’s “The Vortex,” with a cast that included Tallulah Bankhead; later productions on either sides of the Atlantic have starred such disparate names as Nancy Walker and the two Hermiones, Baddeley and Gingold. (An enterprising Broadway producer might want to try wooing Glenn Close and Meryl Streep.)

The first London staging of it in 33 years, director Michael Rudman’s go-round with “Fallen Angels” yokes two rather unexpectedly matched actresses to an elegantly cream-toned set by Paul Farnsworth and some scintillating supporting performances — and then gets out of the way. One could certainly imagine a cleverer second-scene drunken duet for Jane and Julia — this play’s most celebrated set piece — than Rudman manages here (although even then, de la Tour rivets the house by rather musically slurping an oyster).

But in contrast to last year’s centenary-timed parade of Coward revivals, among which only the Redgrave family in “Song at Twilight” passed muster, this “Fallen Angels” amply serves the slightest of texts. At last, here’s a Coward production about the play, not about some morosely misguided take on it, as London’s recent “Hay Fever” and “Private Lives” were.

Coward’s scenario isn’t entirely lacking in substance, even if the play’s implicit social critique (once again for this writer, the real nemesis is repression) seems subordinate to lots of comic business. Two well-heeled women who once shared a French lover during separate Italian trysts, Jane and Julia emerge as advocates for the rights of women to have what scandal-mongers might refer to as a “past,” especially since their 15 years of marriage to their respective husbands have been pointedly lacking in passion. As the play opens, the Sterroll household is thrown into a tizzy by news via postcard of the imminent reappearance after all this time of the erstwhile lover, Maurice (Stephen Greif).

For a while it looks as if Maurice is going to be some pre-Beckett variant of Godot, since he is extensively discussed but only belatedly seen. Much of the play addresses the swoony tangle (literally so in Julia’s case, given her wayward way with a telephone cord) that the mere prospect of Maurice prompts from the women.

Maurice’s eleventh-hour appearance has a catalytic effect on the ladies (one question, however: in so palatial an abode, would the floorboards be that thin?), right down to transforming the maid, Saunders (Tilly Tremayne), whose change of costume immediately prior to the final curtain allows for a sight gag all its own.

Rudman benefits from an adroit troupe of supporting players among whom Greif is clearly relishing a role that allows him to sound like Sacha Distel (a fellow West End denizen in “Chicago”), while looking as if he stepped out of “The Sopranos.” Tremayne has a field day, too, in the sustainedly hilarious (if snobbishly conceived) part of a maid with a more than passing acquaintance with such diverse topics as the desert, golf balls, the French language and sucking pebbles (!). There’s something a shade patronizing about Coward’s belief in the innate hilarity of a hired hand who might actually possess a brain, but Tremayne finesses the part so thoroughly that one awaits her day in the sun (OK, this is London, rain) toplining a West End show.

For the moment, that task falls jointly to de la Tour and Kendal, the latter of whom may be the problematic sticking-point for those accustomed to a comely actress’ consistently deployed shtick. Kendal looks as fresh and gamine-like as ever, and the part — Julia is a balletomane — gives full rein to some pretty impressive stretching abilities. The perf might be less cutesy, though, if Kendal stiffened her neck muscles less and found more vocal variety in her husky gurgle, so that such potentially ripe lines as “search the marmalade” — this from a hungover Julia to her maid — had their proper detonating effect. At the same time, one can only marvel at de la Tour’s effortless deadpan (at times, her inflections recall the Maggie Smith whom de la Tour acted opposite, thrillingly, in the West End’s “Three Tall Women”) alongside her physical ease. She may never be the glamorpuss that Kendal so kittenishly radiates, but what difference? Long before she enters the third scene resembling a basset hound brought out of the rain, de la Tour lifts the trifle that is “Fallen Angels” somewhere near to light comedy heaven.

Fallen Angels

Apollo Theater, London; 775 seats; £32.50 ($47) top

Production

A Bill Kenwright presentation of a play by Noel Coward in two acts. Directed by Michael Rudman.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Paul Farnsworth; lighting, Nick Richings; sound, Wayne Cross. Opened Oct. 25, 2000. Reviewed Nov. 2. Running time: 2 hours.

Cast

Julia Sterroll - Felicity Kendal Jane Banbury - Frances de la Tour Fred Sterroll - James Woolley Maurice Duclos - Stephen Greif Saunders - Tilly Tremayne Willy Banbury - Eric Carte

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